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Buick Regal: Sporty midsize sedan is value leader of near-luxury segment

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Buick’s crossovers — the compact Encore and 7-passenger Enclave — have led its post-bankruptcy recovery.

But a sedan in Buick’s stable is also making noise. The midsize Regal has been on a tear lately. In July, sales were up 31 percent over July 2014. With sedan sales in an industry-wide slump, Regal has given Buick something to cheer about.

Buick pitches the $28,000 Regal as the value leader of the near-luxury segment, an argument it supports with upscale amenities, contemporary technologies and good old-fashioned creature comforts.

Regal is based on a sport sedan developed by GM’s German subsidiary Open. A high-end GS trim capitalizes on that heritage with aggressive engine tuning, a sport suspension and torque-vectoring AWD system. 

No Regal leaves the factory sans keyless entry and ignition, leather upholstery, heated front seats and dual-zone climate control. Ice-blue ambient lighting bathes the understated, well-appointed cabin in a crisp glow.

For 2015, Regal also inherits GM’s 4G LTE, with Wi-Fi, turning the Regal into a rolling Wi-Fi hotspot. 

Other standard tech includes a rearview camera and 8-inch color touchscreen. Regal’s IntelliLink smartphone and voice-command system can read aloud incoming text messages.  

All Regals are equipped with foglights, automatic headlights, dual exhaust tips, heated power mirrors and 18-inch alloy wheels. 

Regal is available in FWD and AWD versions, and with four powertrain variants. The base, 2.4-liter four makes 182 horsepower and can be optionally equipped with GM’s mild hybrid technology (regenerative braking; fuel cut-off when coasting) to earn 36 highway mpg.

The up-level engine is a turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter four that makes 259 hp. Two variants include one with conventional torque-mapping and another, more aggressively tuned version reserved for the GS trim ($38,310, FWD; $40,375, AWD).

The GS adds a sport-tuned suspension with adaptive front dampers that mitigate torque-steer and reduce the jarring impact of bumps taken at speed. There are also Brembo front brakes, unique front and rear fascias, a rear spoiler, front and rear parking sensors and body-color rocker panels.

Nineteen-inch wheels are standard, 20s are optional.

GS ride height is lowered nearly an inch from the stock settings and an Interactive Drive Control system includes a pair of performance-oriented modes that firm up suspension, steering and shift calibration.

The Haldex AWD system fitted to Turbo trims is can shift up to 90 percent of power to the rear wheels. A limited-slip rear differential manages torque distribution, side-to-side, improving foul-weather grip and enhancing GS handling when Interactive Drive Control is operative. 

Inside, GS gets sport pedals, sport front seats and a flat-bottomed three-spoke steering wheel.

The GS compensates for its firm ride with well-controlled body motions and confidence-building handling. Turn-in in quick corners is accurate and stable and the mitigation of torque steering improves handling on exit. The electrically assisted steering system is well weighted, but lacks feel.

Regal’s smallish cabin dimensions limit rear-seat passenger space is tight and leave little room for in-cabin storage space.

Buyers seem willing to look past those concerns, though, and focus on Regal’s strengths, which are abundant indeed.
Contact Don at don@dadair.com.

2015 Buick Regal AWD GS
Vehicle base price: $25,982
Trim level base price: $39,810
As tested: $44,670
Options included adaptive cruise control; forward collision alert; automatic collision prep; rear cross-traffic alert; lane-departure warning; blind-spot alert; moonroof; 20-inch aluminum wheels; summer performance tires.
EPA ratings: 22 combined/19 city/27 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Acura ILX: Acura’s near-luxury compact charts new course for 2016

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This year, Acura charts a simple but significant course correction for its compact ILX sedan.

The near-luxury ILX has grown more refined in each of its first four years, but this year’s updates are the most significant by far.

Acura TLX: Impressive newbie

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Acura’s all-new TLX sedan may be the ideal near-luxury car for the Inland Northwest.

It favors subtlety over flash, does its business quietly and gets the job done, fair weather and foul.

And, at $31,890, including transportation, it’s as affordably priced as the segment gets.

The TLX replaces two cars in the Acura lineup, the compact TLX and the midsize TL. It’s offered with a pair of familiar engines — a four-cylinder from the TSX and the TL's V-6. Both are paired with efficiency-inclined new transmissions. Acura’s sensational torque-vectoring SH-AWD AWD system is available on six-cylinder models.

On front-drive trims, the TLX resurrects the four-wheel-steering system Honda (Acura is Honda’s premium brand) debuted on the 1988 Prelude. Dubbed P-AWS (Precision All-Wheel Steer), its effects are subtle and critical only when some maniac is tossing the TL through the corners.

Just the way I like it. 

Like its forebears, the TLX is comfortable, well-equipped and sturdily built. It blends luxury and sport in a stew that skews too far in neither direction. Its interior improves on its predecessors’, with excellent materials quality and top-notch fit and finish. Noise-cancellation technology slashes cabin noise to a murmur and the plushly padded seats are nicely bolstered. 
There’s abundant rear legroom, though the sweeping roofline limits rear-seat headroom.

Up front, the TLX borrows heavily from the flagship RL, including Acura’s new twin-screen electronics interface. Mastering the system requires some book-time, but it works as promised.

Still, I assign Acura demerits for burying such fundamentals as the seat-heater controls behind a screen or two.

At 3,480 pounds in front-drive trim, the TLX is lighter than the TL it replaces. That’s a load for the base, 206-horsepower, 2.4-liter four, which is paired with an all-new eight-speed automated manual transmission. Some say the four-cylinder TLX is the more entertaining drive — less weight over the front wheels translates into sharper cornering — but for most drivers the payoff comes at the pump; four-cylinder trims earn EPA ratings of 28 mpg combined (24 city/35 highway). 

The up-level engine is a 290-hp, 3.5-liter six mated to a nine-speed automatic. Six-cylinder trims can be ordered with or without AWD.

So equipped, the TLX weighs in at 3,770 pounds and swaps the light-on-its-feet agility of front-drive trims for greater acceleration and improved stability in all conditions. Efficiency drops to an EPA-estimated 25/21/31.

In both trims, ride and handling approaches the Teutonic ideal. The ride is likely be too stiff for some sensibilities, but it’s never rough or harsh. The upside is a car that isn’t upset by undulations, railroad crossings or broken road surfaces. Even at speed,  the well-damped suspension keeps the works under control.

The electrically assisted power steering system is nicely weighted, with good on-center feel, but doesn’t communicate much information from the road surface. 

In the end, other midsize near-luxury sedans are more luxurious and some are sportier. Buy perhaps none matches the new Acura’s blend of attributes, including price. Similarly equipped competitive models are likely to cost thousands more. 

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2015 Acura TLX 3.5L SH-AWD ADV
Vehicle base price: $29,168
Trim level base price: $44,700
As tested: $45,595
Optional equipment: The 3.5L SH-AWD ADV includes such extras as navigation, premium audio and assorted safety systems, including collision-avoidance.
EPA ratings: 25 combined/21 city/31 highway
Unleaded premium fuel recommended

Acura TL: Out of the shadows

Obscured in the shadows cast by showier models, Acura’s midsize TL doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Call it a very good outlier in the near-luxury sport-sedan segment, where BMW’s 3 Series rules. 
Two things set the TL apart from its rivals — its front-wheel-drive architecture (AWD is available, and more about that in a moment) and Acura’s commitment to six-cylinder engines.
Enthusiasts prefer the rear-drive for its superior driving dynamics. Here in the North, though, front-wheel-drive have obvious advantages. Regarding the cylinder count, Acura’s been right all along; the V-8 is disappearing before our eyes.
As it happens, the TL is in the final year of its current life span. You can tell because there’s a new, 2013 Special Edition (SE) trim.
Automakers often use special editions to shine one last light on a car before moving on to next year’s model. Special editions juice last-year sales by bundling desirable options into value-priced packages.
The TL’s SE package comprises a modest collection of convenience and cosmetic add-ons — keyless access and pushbutton start; a color-matched deck lid spoiler; 10-spoke, 18-inch alloy wheels; the requisite trunk-mounted badging.
It amounts to $3,000 worth of premiums for a $1,500 bump, says Acura.
It’s worth noting that the base TL ($36,030, including destination) comes standard with power everything, a brilliant audio system, Bluetooth connectivity and — perhaps my favorite feature — world-class xenon high-intensity discharge headlights.
They light up my driveway like the deck of an aircraft carrier. 
Also standard in the TL quiver is a handsome, well-appointed cabin suitable for four full-size adults, a sport-tuned suspension and one of the most accurate and communicative electrically assisted steering systems in the business.
The TL is, as they say, a “driver’s car.” The suspension is tuned to reduce body roll in the corners, but is compliant enough to smooth out potholes. Sport seats cradle passengers’ backsides, holding them tight when the going gets rambunctious.
The SE package is only available on FWD TLs. If you want AWD, you’ll need to fork over another $3,550 for the TL SH/AWD. 
Acura’s Super-handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH/AWD) system popularized torque vectoring in the States. Without getting into the weeds, I’ll just say it’s the most surefooted system I’ve driven this side of a Porsche Carrera 4.
A 280-horsepower V-6 powers FWD TLs. It’s mated with a 6-speed automatic transmission, which can be optioned with steering-wheel paddle shifters. AWD trims get a 305-hp 3.7-liter V-6 that can be had with the automatic or a no-cost optional 6-speed manual.
Eight cylinders be damned. The engines are quiet, smooth and strong enough to satisfy any sensible person. The transmissions work with the usual Acura efficiency.   
All TLs are eligible for two options packages. TheTechnology package adds handsfree keyless entry, perforated leather, navigation with real-time traffic and weather, rearview camera and 10-speaker surround sound audio. The Advance package adds heated and ventilated front seats and a blind spot monitoring system.
With or without AWD, Acura’s TL is a legitimate near-luxury, sport-sedan contender. It deserves all the attention it gets. 
Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.
2013 Acura TL SE
Vehicle base price: $35,905
Trim level base price: $37,405
As tested: $38,300
Optional equipment: The TL SE is a self-contained package; the test vehicle included no optional equipment.
EPA ratings: 20 city/29 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Cadillac ATS: Meant to be missed

2013 Cadillac ATS

I felt a twinge of loss when it came time to give up Cadillac ATS tester yesterday.
It happens now and again, but only when a car strikes a very specific chord. For me, that chord is all about how the car feels under and around me; how it responds to inputs given it via the steering wheel, pedals and, sometimes, the transmission; how it reacts to the road surface and how much it tells me about what’s going on down there.
Does it remain alien — separate from me — or does it welcome me into its world, invite me into its processes?
It’s an esoteric standard, I admit, and presents a high bar that few cars try and fewer surpass.
Failed attempts litter GM’s history; at one point, it seemed that every car Pontiac built was going to be a BMW-killer.
More recently, Cadillac’s CTS came very close to ringing my bell, but the ATS finally did the trick. Its particular combination of chassis dynamics, mechanics and driver orientation triggered all the right synapses.
Its optional Magnetic Ride Control System (see yesterday’s post) is a marvelous innovation that seemingly has lain in wait for the ATS. In this 3,300-pound car it finds its highest expression of compliance and responsiveness.
Though its benefits are apparent at any speed, they’re most notable when the driver has committed to a hard corner where the pavement is broken or rutted.
When pushed, MRC pushes back — through the hands, the feet and the seat of the pants — communicating the action of the electromagnetic dampers as they react to the broken pavement and fight to keep the tires planted. 
When one is fully in tune with the car, one can detect the initial soft response — and its instantaneous rush to firmness.  
Initially, this sensation of hydraulics at work is a bit strange but the driver quickly comes to appreciate the stability it provides.
Trick hydraulics aside, this chassis has been sorted properly. Coming from a German maker — read BMW — it would be praiseworthy; coming from GM, it’s a revelation.
There are elements of the ATS of which I’m not as fond. CUE — the voice-activated/touchscreen infotainment system — is overly ambitious and a bit of a muddle and the back seat and trunk are smaller than they should be; but this Cadillac is meant to be missed when it goes away.

Cadillac ATS: Taming the wild road

In 2002, GM debuted a new suspension technology called Magnetic Ride Control (MRC).

That name sounds like it came rolling straight from the Hype Machine, but MRC was a breakthrough in suspension design. It’s behind the FE3 sport suspension that’s available on the ATS.
So let’s get geeky.
Suspension engineers are challenged with striking a balance between ride compliance — the ability of a suspension to absorb impacts — and the stiffness required to keep the tires firmly planted when the car leans in a fast corner.  
MRC solves the problems with a single, ingenuous solution.
magnetic ride control shock aborbersThe system employs dampers — a fancy word for shock absorbers — at each corner of the car. Inside each damper is a tube which is filled with a fluid in which iron particles are suspended.
A pair of elecromagnetic coils flanks each fluid-filled tube. 
When sensors distributed throughout the car detect body roll, they send electrical impulses to the coils.
Receiving the impulse stream, the coils switch on, creating a magnetic field that shoots through the fluid and causes the iron bits to line up like trees in an orchard. So aligned, they cause the damper fluid to thicken.
The greater the degree of body roll, the greater the degree of alignment. As the fluid thickens, it exerts greater force on the suspension components that steady the wheel.
MRC reads the road every millisecond and can change damping in five milliseconds, says Cadillac.

2013 Toyota Avalon: Swinging for the fences

For 2013, Toyota set out not to merely update the full-size Avalon; instead, it gave its underachieving flagship a personality transplant.

For the first 12 years of its existence, the Avalon lacked focus and, consequently, a true identity. It was the Toyota of choice for owners seeking Toyota reliability and Lexus comforts but who, for whatever reason, preferred not to move up to Lexus.
The new Avalon erases that past. Shunning its Lexus-lite ID, it has become a car that’s meant to be driven and not merely piloted. 
Sharp reflexes replace previous vagaries. Handling is crisp, steering is quick and accurate. The ride is firm — while remaining supple and compliant — and unwanted body motions are eased into retirement. 
Speaking of which, Toyota aims the new Avalon at a younger set of buyers. Today’s average buyer is 65; Toyota is shooting for 55. 
To this purpose, designers re-skinned the Avalon. Exterior dimensions are tighter and styling is crisper and more dynamic. A strong, lifting shoulder line flows from the front fender to the short decklid, where it meets up with a tapering roofline.
Toyota is especially proud of the front fascia, where a whisper-thin grille floats above a protuberant and oversized lower air intake. The look may not be entirely cohesive but at least we can no longer accuse Toyota of not trying.
In the transition from boulevard cruiser to something more engaging, the Avalon has lost 160 pounds and gained stiffness; chassis rigidity is up 16 percent, reducing body flex and allowing suspension engineers to strike a balance between ride firmness and compliance.
Toyota has spared little expense to elevate the Avalon’s cabin to the highest standards of the near-luxury class — and, perhaps, beyond. Hand-stitched leather (available in two grades) covers the seats, while a soft-touch, hand-stitched material wraps the sculpted, bi-level dash. Smoked-chrome accents and glossy panel pieces add subtle flash. 
A variable-rate window motor powers the windows, slowing them near the top of their travel to reduce wind noise and, says Toyota, “add refinement.”
Despite its trimmer dimensions, Avalon’s interior and trunk have grown more spacious. There is, of course, almost no end to available cabin technology.
Two powertrains are available, a conventional V-6, and a hybrid.
A 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, paired with a three-mode six-speed automatic, powers conventional models. Tuned for efficiency, the gearbox delivers smooth, no-rush shifts that always land the engine in the heart of its power band. In Sport mode, the gearbox matches engine revs on downshifts, an unexpected bit of sport geekery. Toyota claims sub-7-second Zero-to-60 times and a best-in-class efficiency ratings of 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway. 
Running the latest version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, the Avalon Hybrid produces a seamless hybrid experience, while delivering 39 mpg city/40 mpg highway.
More good news: Avalon’s base price ($31,750, including destination) drops $1,445. Hybrids, which are available in premium trims only, start at $36,315.
Under new CEO Akido Toyoda, Toyota and Lexus are redefining themselves. “Toyota’s back and we’re going to be swinging for the fences again,” one exec said at the Avalon launch.
Welcome back.
2013 Toyota Avalon
Various conventional and hybrid models reviewed
Price range: $31,750-42,160
V-6 fuel efficiency: 21 city/31 highway
Hybrid fuel efficiency: 40 city/39 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Cadillac ATS: New kid has attitude

It's all-GM all-the-time this week here at Seat Time.

For the past few days, we've focused on Chevy's new mini-car, the Spark. For the next few days we'll look at Cadillac's newest and smallest, the ATS sport sedan.

We might as well get this out of the way right up top; Cadillac makes no bones of the fact that it benchmarked BMW's 3 Series during ATS development. And why not? The 3 is the world's compact sport sedan of choice; if you're going to pick a target, make it a good one.

The ATS is a four-passenger sedan available in RWD and AWD configurations. It offers a choice of three powerplants - two fours (one turbocharged) and a six - and a wide range of performance enhancements and options.

By its very nature, it's a temptress, beckoning one to places one should not venture — and making sure you love every moment of it.

But more about performance in a later post. For now, we'll say only that the ATS's talents outstrip those of any Caddy before it, save its big brother, the 556-hp CTS-V. Suffice to say, its capabilities also will surpass those possessed by all but a very exclusive handful of drivers.

It's a good one, but so is the 3 Series. We have a shoot-out on our hands, folks.

Before signing off, we'll note that the ATS:

  • is less rougly $2,000 less expensive than the 3, when comparably equipped, says Cadillac;
  • features Cadlillac's new CUE (Cadillac User Experience), an voice-activated touchscreen infotainment system that pairs as many as 10 Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices, USBs, SD cards and MP3 players. You may not love it, but you'll learn to make your peace with it.

Check in tomorrow for a more detailed look at the systems that make the littlest Caddy go.